On Tuesday night, Skylight Books and the USC Center for Immigrant Integration (CSII), and USC Visions and Voices hosted an evening with Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino journalist and filmmaker, Jose Antonio Vargas discussing his new book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.
The event, held at Bovard Auditorium at USC, was moderated by USC English professor Viet Thanh Nguyen and featured a deep conversation about immigration issues and policies in America.
Vargas is one of today’s leading voice for immigrant rights. He is best known for publishing a story in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, where he revealed that he was unknowingly an undocumented immigrant, risking the life he built here in the United States.
Before the event, we sat down with Mr. Vargas for a short Q&A about politics and immigration:
Annenberg Media: How do you view the state of politics from an immigrant standpoint?
Jose Antonio Vargas: American politics is broken. It’s like it has cancer, and I don’t know if it needs chemo or radiation, but I don’t know how long she is going to last. The only real treatment, I think, is surgery. I think we need a civic surgery. People need to be more involved, more engaged.
For example, the Asian community. Asian immigrants are the fastest growing racial group and immigrant group in the country. According to some numbers, we’re one of the most educated and most affluent groups, and other numbers show we’re the least likely to participate in civic participation. So what is that about?
Is it the Korean, Japanese, Filipinos taking care of their own? We’re not as organized as, for example, Latinos are. But Latinos have the advantage of having the same language. We don’t. What do we have in common? It’s a very complicated thing, and I worry about complacency. Is it enough for us to send our kids to college, have a nice house, drive a nice car? Is that enough for America?
America needs more of that from us, it needs us to participate, it needs us to be more engaged.
AM: What sort of things are the mainstream political discussions of immigration ignoring/missing out on?
JAV: Mostly the basic facts. If the American public were to know that undocumented people and undocumented workers actually pay billions of dollars in taxes and social security, would they think any differently? Like the “master narrative” of society says that we’re taking away from society, even though in reality, we’re not only adding to society, but society can’t function without us. So why do all of these mainstream news organizations don’t even acknowledge that? The issue has been so presented and framed as a border issue that we haven’t really examined the other cases.
AM: Especially with the midterms coming in November, what are some things we need to think about and look out for?
JAV: In this country, voting isn’t just a privilege, it’s a right. If you have the privilege of voting, you have to vote. For me, one of the things that we need to work on — I mean we always talk about young people voting, which is fantastic and necessary — but how do we get our aunts, our uncles, our parents, and grandparents feel like America is more than something they wear or buy, it’s something they take part in.
Voting is the apex of participation. So, how do we make them, as well as the younger generations, feel engaged in their own community? It’s a hard question that I hope we get this generation to figure out.
Vargas is also the founder and CEO of Define American, a non-profit media and culture organization that fights injustice and anti-immigrant hate through storytelling.